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  • The Wealth of Wives: Women, Law, and Economy in Late Medieval London
  • Lee Tunstall (bio)
The Wealth of Wives: Women, Law, and Economy in Late Medieval London by Barbara A. Hanawalt. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007, 336 pp., $99.00 hardcover, $19.95 paper.

Medieval women's history has grown into a vibrant branch of women's history over the past three decades. Much of this growth has been due to [End Page 212] the painstaking efforts of female historians who have pored over mountains of archival data to uncover discrete pieces of information from women's lives and weave them into a tapestry of knowledge for fellow scholars and students.

Barbara Hanawalt has achieved a distinguished career by scouring diverse sets of documents in order to learn about the lived experiences of diverse medieval populations. Her earlier works focused on medieval crime, the lives of medieval peasants, and the experience of childhood in medieval London, and all of her books made extensive use of legal and other administrative sources.1 Her current work is truly foundational in that no substantial work on the legal status and rights of women in medieval London existed before. The Wealth of Wives is a major contribution not only to medieval women's legal history but also to English legal and economic history and the history of marriage in medieval times.

In this book, Hanawalt concentrates on the lives of women in late medieval London, and, early on, puts forward her central thesis that "the circulation of wealth, talent, and service through women contributed to capital formation in late medieval London, and paved the way for London to become an international player" (4). This led London women to operate within a system of "constrained" or "self-limiting" patriarchy, as wealth was not concentrated in the hands of men, as in some other urban centers, such as Venice. Instead, wealth was much more fluid, with women playing a central role in its circulation. Hanawalt thus departs from the more traditional approach to viewing women's economic contributions through roles as laborers or entrepreneurs, and instead positions them squarely as conduits of wealth, having their own, if limited, agency. Much of this agency still focused around the traditional institution of marriage, and the transfer of wealth which occurred at the time of marriage (dowry), and at the time of widowhood (dower) and remarriage, which often occurred. Hanawalt is careful at all times to remind the reader that the concepts of equity and feminism that we in the twenty-first century understand were simply not present in the minds of fourteenth- and fifteenth-century Londoners.

As the late medieval period includes the Black Death, Hanawalt mentions this event as having a significant impact on women. The plague caused the population of London to be halved within two years of 1348, and it remained low until the end of the fifteenth century. Hanawalt makes the point clearly that this did not constitute, as some scholars argue, a "golden age" for women. This theory states that because of the depopulation after the Black Death, women had more opportunities to secure paid employment outside the household or conduct their own businesses, which in turn led to greater independence for greater numbers of women. The Black Death did indeed lead to increased economic opportunities for women, but it was because the transfer of wealth was [End Page 213] concentrated in fewer hands, and marriages and especially remarriages aided in this concentration.

Hanawalt's selection of London as the study's geographic focus is important as London laws differed markedly from other jurisdictions outside the urban area. Those women who were classified as "citizens" of London were eligible to receive wealth from their families and from their husbands. As the system of primogeniture—according to which the eldest son received the entire inheritance—did not exist in London, women had many more opportunities there than elsewhere. A London man's estate was divided three ways: One-third for debt and salvation of his soul; one-third for his children's inheritance (which included his daughters); and one-third as a dower for his widow for use during her life...